Queering Harry Bailly: Gendered Carnival, Social Ideologies, and Masculinity Under Duress in the Canterbury Tales

  • Tison Pugh
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Harry Bailly is a man’s man. He serves as “governing figure, as ruler, as king” of the Canterbury pilgrimage,1 and he also represents a “figure of bourgeois masculinity,”2 as well as a “recognizable type of the proud man.”3 Walter Scheps asserts that “Harry is, even more than the monk, ‘a manly man,’ ”4 and William Keen sees in Harry a sufficiency of “heroic qualities… to recommend his services to pilgrims who must pass where perils may lie.”5 Indeed, Chaucer’s first description of the Host underscores his vibrant masculinity:

A semely man OURE HOOSTE was withalle

For to been a marchal in an halle.

A large man he was with eyen stepe—

A fairer burgeys was ther noon in Chepe—

Boold of his speche, and wys, and wel ytaught,

And of manhod hym lakkede right naught. (1.751–56)6


Sexual Prowess Canterbury Tale Social Superior Heroic Quality Bourgeois Masculinity 
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  1. 1.
    David R. Pichaske and Laura Sweetland, “Chaucer on the Medieval Monarchy: Harry Bailly in the Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer Review 11 (1976–77): 179–200, at p. 198.Google Scholar
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    Mark Allen, “Mirth and Bourgeois Masculinity in Chaucer’s Host,” Masculinities in Chaucer: Approaches to Maleness in the Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde, ed. Peter G. Beidler (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1998), 9–21, at p. 9.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Barbara Page, “Concerning the Host,” Chaucer Review 4 (1970): 1–13, at p. 5.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Walter Scheps, “ ‘Up roos oure Hoost, and was oure aller cok’: Harry Bailly’s Tale-Telling Competition,” Chaucer Review 10 (1975–76): 113–28, at p. 114.Google Scholar
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    William Keen, “ ‘To doon yow ese’: A Study of the Host in the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales,” Topic 17 (1969): 5–18, at p. 10.Google Scholar
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    All references to and citations of Chaucer are taken from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987) and are noted parenthetically.Google Scholar
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    According to the Middle English Dictionary, “manhed” and “manhod(e)” are used as abstract nouns referring to “manly virtue, character, or dignity; manliness” and “the character befitting a knight or monarch; chivalric nature or dignity; courageous behavior, bravery, valor.” Chaucer’s reference to Harry Bailly’s manhood thus likely carries connotations of courage and bravery to accompany his attractive physical appearance, as well as possible allusions to his assumption of aristocratic manners.Google Scholar
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    Recent studies of homosexuality and queerness in Chaucer’s oeuvre include Susan Schibanoff, Chaucer’s Queer Poetics: Rereading the Dream Trio (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006); Glenn Burger, Chaucer’s Queer Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Richard E. Zeikowitz, Homoeroticism and Chivalry: Discourses of Male Same-Sex Desire in the Fourteenth Century (New York: Palgrave, 2003); John Bowers, “Queering the Summoner: Same-Sex Union in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,” Speaking Images: Essays in Honor of V. A. Kolve, ed. Robert F. Yeager and Charlotte C. Morse (Asheville, NC: Pegasus, 2001), pp. 301–24; Carolyn Dinshaw, “Chaucer’s Queer Touches /A Queer Touches Chaucer,” Exemplaria 7 (1995): 75–92; and my Queering Medieval Genres (New York: Palgrave, 2004), pp. 45–106.Google Scholar
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    Burger, Chaucer’s Queer Nation, p. xvi. Burger here uses the term gay where I would employ queer, but we agree on the disruptive potential of renegade sexualities.Google Scholar
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    With full awareness of its limitations to describe medieval auditory hermeneutics, I use the term “reading” as an appropriate lexical shorthand to discuss Harry’s adventures in literary interpretation. Obviously, Harry is an auditor, not a reader; however, my interest lies more in his confessional responses than in the particular interpretive process—ocular or auditory—involved. Scholarship on medieval textual and auditory communities includes Brian Stock, “Textual Communities” in his The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 88–240; M. T. Clanchy, “Hearing and Seeing,” From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066–1307 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), pp. 253–93; and Janet Coleman, “Vernacular Literacy and Lay Education,” Medieval Readers and Writers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), pp. 18–57.Google Scholar
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    Judith Ferster sees Harry’s failures as host arising from his difficulties in interpretation in her Chaucer on Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 139–49. See also Robert Sturges, Medieval Interpretation: Models of Reading in Literary Narrative, 1100–1500 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991).Google Scholar
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    John M. Ganim, “Bakhtin, Chaucer, Carnival, Lent,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer Proceedings 2 (1986): 59–71, at p. 61. Ganim’s article also addresses Chaucer’s literature in relation to other Bakhtinian theories, notably the dialogic. See also Jon Cook, “Carnival and the Canterbury Tales: ‘Only Equals May Laugh,’ ” Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, and History, ed. David Aers (New York: St. Martin’s, 1986), pp. 169–91 and the essays on Chaucer in Bahktin and Medieval Voices, ed. Thomas J. Farrell (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995), including Robert M. Jordan, “Heteroglossia and Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale,” pp. 81–93; Steve Guthrie, “Dialogics and Prosody in Chaucer,” pp. 94–108, and Thomas J. Farrell, “The Chronotypes of Monology in Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale,” pp. 141–57.Google Scholar
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    Sarah Roche-Mahdi, ed. and trans., Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues, 1992); see lines 2823–30.Google Scholar
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    John C. Hirsh, ed., “I haue a gentil cok,” Medieval Lyric: Middle English Lyrics, Ballads, and Carols (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), p. 118. For a study of the phallic imagery in this lyric, see Lorrayne Y. Baird-Lange, “Symbolic Ambivalence in ‘I haue a gentil cok,’ ” Fifteenth-Century Studies 11 (1985): 1–5, in which she concludes that “the barnyard cock in all his gorgeousness” symbolizes “the Christ-cock who awakens the priest, the priest-cock who performs his matins, and the phallic cock who stirs the priest and puts to flight all other cocks” (p. 5). For Chaucer’s use of cock imagery, see André Crépin, “The Cock, the Priest, and the Poet,” Drama, Narrative, and Poetry in the Canterbury Tales, ed. Wendy Harding (Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2003), pp. 227–36. The Medieval English Dictionary attests an idiomatic usage of “ben aller cok” as “to wake everybody,” and the phallic connotations of “cock” in the Middle Ages are amply demonstrated by Louise O. Vasvari, “Fowl Play in My Lady’s Chamber: Textual Harassment of a Middle English Pornithological Riddle and Visual Pun,” Obscenity: Social Control and Artistic Creation in the European Middle Ages, ed. Jan M. Ziolkowski (Leiden: Brill, 1998), pp. 108–35. See also the entries on the symbolic valences of cocks in Jack Tresidder, Dictionary of Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to Traditional Images, Icons, and Emblems (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 1998) and Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, eds., A Dictionary of Symbols, trans. John Buchanan-Brown (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).Google Scholar
  16. 25.
    Judith Butler succinctly characterizes gender as “a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint,” which nicely captures the tension between gender play and social expectation (Undoing Gender [New York: Routledge, 2004], at p. 1). See also Butler’s Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993) and Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). For analysis of gender performance in Chaucer’s literature, see Holly Crocker, Chaucer’s Visions of Manhood (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) and Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Google Scholar
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    “Marshal” is defined simply as a “master of ceremonies” by both The Riverside Chaucer, p. 35 and Norman Davis et al., A Chaucer Glossary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), p. 93. The Middle English Dictionary, however, offers a more expansive definition that focuses primarily on the upper levels of society: “The chief officer of a kingdom, steward;… one of the high officers of the royal court,” with a secondary definition as “An official in a royal or noble household in charge of ceremonies, protocol, seating, service, etc.” The brief definitions of The Riverside Chaucer and A Chaucer Glossary foreclose analysis of Harry’s position, which Chaucer seems, in characteristic fashion, to have constructed with deep ambiguity.Google Scholar
  18. 27.
    Again deferring to the authority of the Middle English Dictionary, we see that “burgeis” is dually defined as “a freeman of a town, a citizen with full rights and privileges; also, an inhabitant of a town;—usually used of city merchants and master craftsmen in the guilds,” as well as “a magistrate or other official of a town; a member of the council or assembly governing a town… the representative of a town in the House of Commons.”Google Scholar
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    This aggression in the tale-telling competition is one of the more notable characteristics of the Canterbury Tales. Scholarship on this narratival aggression includes Anne Laskaya, “Men in Love and Competition: The Miller’s Tale and the Merchant’s Tale,” Chaucer’s Approach to Gender in the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1995), pp. 78–98; Emily Jensen, “Male Competition as a Unifying Motif in Fragment A of the Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer Review 24 (1990): 320–28; and Lindahl, “Conventions of a Narrative War,” Earnest Games, pp. 73–155.Google Scholar
  20. 30.
    Stephen Partridge intriguingly suggested to me that, in the phrase “ ‘Straw for youre gentillesse,’ ” the emphasis in Harry’s words should be placed on “youre,” which would suggest that Harry is not attacking gentility as a social value in itself as much as he is attacking the Franklin’s particular construction of aristocratic gentility. Such an observation is consistent with the ways in which Harry’s liminal ideology reflects his attempts to turn rhetorical situations to his advantage. 31. According to the Middle English Dictionary, “mayde” denotes a male virginGoogle Scholar
  21. as well as a young woman, and so it is possible that Harry is commenting more on the Clerk’s virginity than on his apparent femininity. The corresponding depiction of this maid apprehensively awaiting the impending loss of virginity after the marriage feast nonetheless suggests stereotypical depictions of femininity rather than of masculinity.Google Scholar
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    For scholarship on the medieval connections among reading, literature, and play, see Glending Olson, Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982), esp. pp. 90–127.Google Scholar
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    Emma Wilson, Sexuality and the Reading Encounter (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), p. 5.Google Scholar
  24. 34.
    John Plummer, “ ‘Beth fructuous and that in litel space’: The Engendering of Harry Bailly,” New Readings of Chaucer’s Poetry, ed. Robert G. Benson and Susan J. Ridyard (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003), 107–18, at p. 117.Google Scholar
  25. 35.
    Although “male” means “bag” or “pouch” in a medieval lexicon, the Oxford English Dictionary attests that its meaning as “masculine” was developing in the 1380s, which makes likely a bawdy yet typically Chaucerian pun. The Middle English Dictionary likewise documents that the word can mean either a “male human being” or a “bag, pouch.” Such a sexual interpretation of the phrase “unbokeled is the male” gains further credence when compared with the Pardoner’s more openly suggestive pun in his request to Harry Bailly: “ ‘Com forth, sire Hoost, and offre first anon, /And thou shalt kisse the relikes everychon, /Ye, for a grote! Unbokele anon thy purs’ ” (6.943–45). For further discussion of this passage, see Robert Sturges, Chaucer’s Pardoner and Gender Theory: Bodies of Discourse (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000), pp. 74–76.Google Scholar
  26. 36.
    Edwin Stieve argues that the phrase “in terme” indicates Harry’s failure to use rhetorical and medical terminology correctly (“A New Reading of the Host’s ‘In terme’ [Canterbury Tales VI, line 311],” Notes and Queries 34.1 [1987]: 7–10).Google Scholar
  27. 37.
    John David Burnley, “Chaucer’s Host and Harry Bailly,” Chaucer and the Craft of Fiction, ed. Leigh A. Arrathoon (Rochester, MI: Solaris, 1986), 195–218, at p. 210. For additional studies of the gap between expectations of social conduct and behavior, see the essays in Medieval Conduct, ed. Kathleen Ashley and Robert L. A. Clark (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  28. 38.
    This scene receives a great deal of critical scrutiny. Studies that most inform my analysis include Sturges, Chaucer’s Pardoner and Gender Theory; Alastair Minnis, “Chaucer and the Queering Eunuch,” New Medieval Literatures 6 (2003): 107–29; Richard E. Zeikowitz, “Silenced but Not Stifled: The Disruptive Queer Power of Chaucer’s Pardoner,” Dalhousie Review 82.1 (2002): 55–73; Lee Patterson, “Chaucer’s Pardoner on the Couch: Psyche and Clio in Medieval Literary Studies,” Speculum 76.3 (2001): 638–80; Steven F. Kruger, “Claiming the Pardoner: Toward a Gay Reading of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale,” Exemplaria 6.1 (1994): 115–39; Glenn Burger, “Kissing the Pardoner,” PMLA 107.4 (1992): 1143–56; Monica McAlpine, “The Pardoner’s Homosexuality and How It Matters,” PMLA 95.1 (1980): 8–22; and Richard Firth Green, “Further Evidence for Chaucer’s Representation of the Pardoner as a Womanizer,” Medium Ævum 71.2 (2002): 307–09, as well as his “The Pardoner’s Pants (and Why They Matter),” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 15 (1993): 131–45.Google Scholar
  29. 39.
    Studies of homosocial relationships in the Middle Ages readily demonstrate that the simple act of two men kissing need not disclose any homoerotic valence. For example, see C. Stephen Jaeger, Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), esp. pp. 128–33. For a study of kissing and its cultural meanings in the Middle Ages, see Yannick Carré, Le Baiser sur la bouche au moyen age: rites, symboles, mentalités, à travers les texts et les images, XIe-XVe siècles (Paris: Léopard d’Or, 1992), as well as Michael Philip Penn, Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005). The queerness of the kiss between Harry and the Pardoner lies not in the physical act itself as much as in the fact that they are compelled to act against their will in an act with sexual implications.Google Scholar
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    Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 136.Google Scholar
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    For a reading of Harry’s relationship to the Nun’s Priest in terms of authorial and sexual positioning, see Peter W. Travis, “The Body of the Nun’s Priest, or, Chaucer’s Disseminal Genius,” Reading Medieval Culture: Essays in Honor of Robert W. Hanning, ed. Robert Stein and Sandra Pierson Prior (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), pp. 231–47.Google Scholar
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    In Chaucer’s lexicon, “daliaunce” often connotes sexual flirtations, as in the short poem “To Rosemounde,” in which Chaucer complains to his eponymous beloved that “ye to me ne do no daliaunce” (8, 16, 24). The Middle English Dictionary defines “daliaunce” as “polite, leisurely, intimate conversation or entertainment”; “serious, edifying, or spiritual conversation”; and “amorous talk or to-do; flirting, coquetry; sexual union.” For a discussion of the sexual overtones of “daliaunce,” see my Queering Medieval Genres, pp. 57–58. “Daliaunce” appears eleven times in Chaucer’s canon, according to Larry D. Benson, ed., A Glossarial Concordance to the Riverside Chaucer (New York: Garland, 1993); it carries the distinct connotation of sexual courtship and flirtation in eight of these instances.Google Scholar
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    Bernard Suits observes that the rules of a game make its objectives difficult to achieve for the sheer fun of this added difficulty: “To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs (prelusory goal), using only means permitted by rules (lusory means), where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means (constitutive rules), and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity (lusory attitude)” (The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978], p. 41). Poetry shares a similar gamelike structure, as rhythm, meter, and rhyme add a rule structure to a communicative mode for playful and aesthetic rather than utilitarian purposes.Google Scholar
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    Andrew Taylor, “The Curious Eye and the Alternative Endings of the Canterbury Tales,” Part Two: Reflections on the Sequel, ed. Paul Budra and Betty A. Schellenberg (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 34–52, at p. 38.Google Scholar
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    For considerations of the meaning of “sentence” and “solaas,” see Alan Gaylord, “Sentence and Solaas in Fragment VII of the Canterbury Tales: Harry Bailly as Horseback Editor,” PMLA 82 (1967): 226–35 and L. M. Leith, “Sentence and Solaas: The Function of the Hosts in the Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer Review 17 (1982): 5–20.Google Scholar

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© Tison Pugh 2008

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